Mankind's duty to war children

International Law Concerning Child Civilians in Armed Conflict
February 27, 1998

Killing, maiming, torturing, starving and raping children is wrong even when there is a war on. This is not just liberal opinion: the world community has endorsed this view through an enormous and complex set of international law, which is neither well known nor properly enforced. Jenny Kuper was for many years a solicitor with the Children's Legal Centre in London. Worries that her book may read too much like the PhD thesis from which it is drawn are unfounded. The enormity of the misery suffered by child victims of armed conflict is brought home to the reader in her carefully documented pages.

Unicef estimates that two million children have been killed in conflicts around the world in the past decade and that four million to five million others have been disabled. The number of children killed in Rwanda in 1994 was probably more than 250,000. And in the former Yugoslavia by the end of 1993, more than 15,000 children had been killed and more than 35,000 wounded in the war.

Kuper has brought together all the treaties, conventions, laws, protocols, declarations and instruments that have a bearing on the position of child civilians in armed conflict. For the international law professional, this would be reason enough to have a copy. For those involved in planning and conducting military operations, the special position of the child in war needs to be better known. As soldiers find themselves operating more and more in UN-sponsored operations, they need to make sure they understand all of the rules.

Many of these rules have been developed by the UN. As the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child affirms: "Mankind owes to the child the best it has to give." The negotiating processes for the relevant Articles of International Humanitarian Law seem at times to lose sight of mankind's duty. Working groups argued heatedly over whether states would be obliged to take all necessary measures to prevent children under 18 taking part in hostilities. They settle in the end for taking all feasible measures for those under 15. But does the wording matter if monitoring and enforcement are ineffective?

To assess the effectiveness of this body of law in practice, three recent conflicts are described. They all involve Iraq, but the lessons would apply equally well in Somalia, Rwanda, Angola, Algeria, the former Yugoslavia or Chechnya.

The use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in 1987 and 1988 has some stark, well-documented violations of the Rights of the Child. In just one attack in one village on April 16 1987, 76 children aged between one day and eight years died from mustard gas. By 1988, the far more effective toxic nerve gases were employed. The photographs of the results of the attack on Halabja with some 6,000 deaths brought this terror to the attention of the world. I recall deep diplomatic displeasure being shown in London by the limiting of official attendance at Iraqi social functions.

The second conflict in which children suffered greatly was during the occupation of Kuwait and the 1991 Gulf war. There was terrible carnage inflicted both by Iraq on Kuwaiti children and by the US-led alliance's attacks on Iraq. Finally, the suppression of uprisings in Iraq after the Gulf war led to a mass exodus of Kurdish refugees in the north and brutal crushing of Shia in the south. Millions of Kurds fled north, and the world was shown bleak mountains packed with starving families. One US agency records 6,700 refugees (most children under the age of five) perishing in mountain camps along the Turkish border over a period of two months.

While the international community condemned the outrages of war in all of these conflicts, there is little indication that the special place of the child in international law was even acknowledged. Kuper offers ways to enhance the effectiveness of the law, but admits that it is likely to remain inadequately observed. Nevertheless, the first step is to ensure that those in government and in the military know what is required.

At the end of her litany of death and destruction, she rightly concludes that the work is worthwhile if it results in even one child being spared death or injury.

Sir Timothy Garden is director, Royal Institute of International Affairs, and a former assistant chief of the air staff.

International Law Concerning Child Civilians in Armed Conflict

Author - Jenny Kuper
ISBN - 0 19 8264852
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £18.99
Pages - 283

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